Nature, grace, and the coercive authority of the Church

Pater Edmund has an excellent four-part series on the reconcilability of Dignitatis Humanæ with the Catholic Church’s traditional condemnation of religious liberty and the duty of states to protect the true faith.  On the face, Vatican II’s endorsement of religious liberty contradicts solemnly defined prior teaching, which would call the Church’s reliability in general into question.  In Part I, he reviews attempts by Catholics to prove compatibility which he regards as unsuccessful.  In Part II, he defends the interpretation put forward by English philosopher Thomas Pink.  Pink puts the Church’s teachings in the context of early-modern arguments about whether the state holds a monopoly on coercion or if the Church has her own coercive authority.  Dignitatis Humanæ states that the state has no authority of coercion in matters of religion, which is traditional doctrine, and it doesn’t condemn the other traditional doctrine that the Church does have such authority and can delegate it to the state.  The only new thing in Dignitatis Humanæ on this reading is that the Church revokes this authority from the state, a matter of policy rather than doctrine.  Part III is a historical overview of Church-state relations in Western Christendom focusing on issues of religious coercive authority and its source.  Part IV concerns the disagreements of mid-twentieth century theologians on the relationship between Church and state.  It was the attempt to avoid pronouncing on unsettled questions that led the Council Fathers to adopt such a confusing (and if Pink is right, even deceptive) document.

The Pink thesis succeeds in keeping a number of Magisterial claims from contradicting one another, although the liberal rights/dignity framing of the Vatican II teaching is still a problem.  If true, it means the real Protestant worries weren’t addressed at all.  It would have been more honest of the Council Fathers to have stated things clearly and then written about the limits justice imposes on how the Church may utilize coercion.  I don’t have a good sense of what the Church’s coercive power in matters of belief should look like, I suppose because of my contamination with Hobbesian ideas linking coercion with the state.  Also, I now realize that some of what I wrote in my Conservative Vision of Authority is heretical and must be revised.  I thank Pater Edmund for this service.

Part IV, by the way, has some useful information about how the “pure nature” debate fed into the Church’s response to liberalism, something we’ve just been talking about here.

In the 1950s the Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray tried to prove the compatibility of Catholicism and American political philosophy.

Murray’s argued for an even stricter separation of Church and state than Maritain. Murray founds this separation on a strict distinction of nature and grace— the state as a community rooted in natural law has a different end from the Church, the Church’s end being given by grace. As the Murray scholar Leon Hooper, S.J., put it:

[In] this world there are two sources of moral authority. Early on these were for Murray the state and the church, or, more generally, the natural law and the revealed law. Later they became civil societies and religious communities, or the secular and the sacred. Each of the two orders is differently based (in creation and redemption) and is directed toward different ends (civic friendship and eternal beatitude). Each can legitimately claim its own autonomy.

This would seem to confirm Michael Paterson Seymour’s worries about the philosophy of pure nature promoting secularism.  On the other hand, de Lubac promoted the independence of the state from the opposite premiss:

As we saw in Calvin’s case, a monistic view of the relation of nature and grace leads to exaggeratedly dualistic view of the relation of Church and state, and so it is no surprise that de Lubac’s slight tendency toward a monism of grace leads him to exaggerate the autonomy of the state. Thus already in 1932 de Lubac denied that the state ought to be juridically subordinated to the Church, arguing that just as grace transforms nature from within, the Church should inspire the state through the hearts of its citizens, but without giving it external commands:

The law of the relations between nature and grace, in its generality, is everywhere the same. It is from within that grace seizes nature, and, far from diminishing nature, raises it up, in order to make it serve its (grace’s) own ends. It is from within that faith transforms reason, that the Church influences the state. As the messenger of Christ, the Church is not the guardian of the state; on the contrary she ennobles the state, inspiring it to be a Christian state and thereby more human.[15]

De Lubac thus went further than Maritain, whose disciple Charles Journet he cites unfavorably, since de Lubac considers a potestas indirecta of the Church over temporal affairs illegitimate at all times.

So, does this mean that the nature/grace debate was orthogonal to the Church’s capitulation to liberalism?  In fact, the author suggests that both sides started from the same misunderstanding, leading them to the same mistake by different paths.

n the aftermath of the Council, in his preface to a German translation ofAugustinisme et théologie modern, de Lubac complained of a “rising tide of immanentism,” that was trying to “dissolve the Church into the world,”[12] and against which de Lubac wanted to preserve the distinction between nature and grace. Before and during the Council, however, he saw the danger as coming primarily from the other direction— from those who made that distinction too sharp, separating nature and grace too much.[13] This is the problem that we saw in John Courtney Murray. While de Lubac recognized this problem clearly, recent work by theologians such as Steven Long suggests that he misidentified its roots. De Lubac argued that the problem lay in the idea of “pure nature” ordered to a natural end intelligible in abstraction from grace. But Long has convincingly argued that the real problem lies in a conception of nature that is not theonomic enough, a conception that makes nature appear as a closed system indifferent toward the divine. De Lubac’s misidentification of the root of the problem leads him to postulate a natural desire for a supernatural end, an idea that tends towards a monism of grace.[14]

12 Responses

  1. Does “coercion” here include violence?

  2. I’m sorry; should not have been coy. What I mean is, if a man thinks that it is good and right for the Church to burn people alive for believing differently, then he ought to say so. If this is the idea, “it would have been more honest . . . to have stated things clearly.”

  3. Were people ever burned for “believing differently”?
    Did they never call upon people to loot and sack Churches and abbeys and other Churchly establishments?

    Haven’t heretical movements generally iconaclastic and filled with calls for poverty of the Church which is nothing but despoiling the Church and subverting the State?

  4. I’d have to disagree with Pink’s claim regarding the revocation of this authority. If the Church were to revoke the state’s duty to suppress heresy, she would need to do so clearly, on account of the canonical principle that laws must be interpreted strictly. I’d question whether it is even possible for the Church to revoke this duty, any more than she could revoke our personal duty to believe her dogmas.

    As far as the issue of state coercion in religious matters, I think a distinction should be made. Surely it must be admitted that the state has the authority to suppress religious practices involving violations of the natural law, such as idolatry or human sacrifice. On the other hand, here’s an interesting question, in the absence of divine revelation (say in the third millennium BC, when there was no divinely established religious authority), could the state regulate religion beyond enforcing the natural law? I would think that the answer would be no. In any case, I think it pretty clear that such an authority does not exist now on the state’s part.

    One other thing, the Church has traditionally used the authority of the state to prevent even the unbaptized from spreading their errors. Should this authority be considered as an extension of the Church’s authority over the baptized, that it can order the state to take measures to protect the faithful from such other religions?

  5. To make the point more clear, consider the issue of marriage. I assume we can all agree that the state must recognize valid marriages, and not recognize invalid marriages. Surely it would be rather absurd for the Church to be able to authorize the state to fail in this?

  6. DJ,

    Under canon law both then and now, a charge of heresy requires that the offender have expressed his ideas to some other person, not necessarily publicly, but expressing it to another person is required. In order to be absolved and not punished, recantation was (and is) required. If a person is obstinate the state would be justified in punishing him, even by death if necessary to prevent the spread of his ideas. I would add that executions ought to be carried out as humanely as possible.

  7. The relation of Nature and Grace is a profound mystery of faith, just as free will is a natural mystery. To believe in a Creator is to believe that, in some sense, both Creator and creature, the Infinite and the finite, are enacting the finite creature’s existence, with the creature’s activity welling up out of the creative act.

    Peter Bernardi SJ has an interesting and amusing analogy (or rather, caricature) of the rival views of Blondel and Descoqs of the relationship between the natural and the supernatural.

    For Blondel, “In the architectural design of this ancient Roman building [the Pantheon], the lines of force of the circular walls converge on the open space above, the primary source of light. Standing within the windowless building, one notices that no part of the cavernous interior is “compartmentalized,” but the eye is directed upwards to the incoming light. Though the lower part of the structure has solidity, it has no self-contained status. There are no “walls of separation” that divide one section from another. Furthermore, without the light that descends from above, it would be impossible to take adequate account of the lower levels.”

    For Descoqs, “Imagine a two-story house with a ground floor that is partitioned into several rooms. This floor is completely furnished and fully liveable. The windows provide sufficient light to carry on the tasks of daily life. The family residing on the ground floor has no real need of an upper floor. However, there does exist a second floor to which access is gained when trapdoors are opened from above and portable staircases let down. Only then does the family come to know of the existence of this upper level of which they had no previous inkling. Furthermore, they are told that a superior life awaits them above and that they must choose to ascend to the second floor under threat of being thrown out of the house altogether… there seems to be nothing in their native experience that would make such a move to a higher, supernatural life a compelling necessity except for the fact that a summons, a revelation “from above,” has been issued.”

  8. ArkansasReactionary wrote, “If a person is obstinate the state would be justified in punishing him…”

    But the Church has always held tht she alone is the judge of heresy. The state had no inherent jurisdiction, but merely punished those condemned by the Church and relaxed to the secular arm.

  9. Yes, I meant if the Church had already condemned him.

  10. > Does “coercion” here include violence?

    I would have liked to have heard more about that myself. The general right to impose sanctions of some sort is much more vague than what people are actually interested in.

  11. […] provides proof, you say? Proofs be rayciss! Also from Bonald, some groundwork for the question of Nature, grace, and the coercive authority of the Church, with seconds; musings upon whether the United States are ready for monarchy; and some deep […]

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